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India by  Victor Surridge


 

 

UNSETTLED TIMES

[124] THAT the French were playing a losing game there could be no manner of doubt. The genius of Dupleix no longer availed them; and although the wise and valiant Marquis de Bussy did much to strengthen his countrymen's power in the Deccan, he—as the great arch-schemer before him—was fated to be superseded by another. That other was Count Arthur de Lally, Baron de Tollendal. An Irishman by birth, a too fond allegiance to the banished House of Stuart had driven his family to seek refuge at the French Court. The youthful exile took service in the far-famed Irish Brigade. At nineteen he commanded a company. At twenty-five, for his successful execution of a delicate mission, he was rewarded with a colonelcy. The young officer, with his handsome face and gallant bearing, won great favour from King Louis. It was not long before he became a person of great influence at Court; and when the crisis in the East became acute, it was he who was chosen to restore to their former proud position the wavering fortunes of the French. Thus at the age of sixty-five we find him styled Lieutenant-General [125] of the East. Supreme command over all the French troops in India was his, and strictly was he charged by his royal master to plant the flag of the lilies supreme in the peninsula.

Advancing years had dimmed nothing of the general's fire and prowess. Towards England he bore a bitter hatred—the hatred that an exile feels for the power which has robbed him of the land of his birth. Fierce, impetuous, and headstrong was the Compte de Lally, and it was not long before the rumblings of discontent were heard amongst his men. They did not like his imperious commands; they grumbled openly at his passion for hard work. His Hindú allies liked him still less, for Lally in his ignorance of native ways had made their high-caste natives work like galley-slaves. He had forced their sacred Brahmins to become mere hewers of wood and drawers of water. He had desecrated their idols, and blown their priests from the mouths of his guns. Little wonder then if the name of Frenchman grew by degrees to stink in the native nostrils.

To the bold leader, accustomed to command the finest troops in France, his new task was a heart-breaking one. The ignorance and incompetence of his officers aroused him to fierce anger. The obstinacy of the Council at Pondicherry caused him to choke with rage and indignation. "Let them delay in sending me supplies and money," he cried once in a frenzy of impatience, "and I will harness them to waggons and flog them like mules!" The Irish soldiers alone proved worthy of their general. They fought with all the gallantry of their [126] race, and performed prodigies of valour. Lally himself was always seen sword in hand where danger was greatest. But for all his bravery he could not turn the balance in favour of the French.

It was at Wandewash that the final blow was struck. On its blood-stained field the French power in India received its death-thrust. Long and bitter had been the struggle for supremacy, much blood had been shed in the contest; but this fateful February morning of the year 1760 saw the question decided once and for all.

Outside the battered fortress of Wandewash, Lally and his men lay encamped. The place had been taken from them by the English, and the French were making preparation to win it back. The general took council with his engineers. How anxiously was the situation discussed; how cunningly their plans of attack evolved! Alas! for their hopes. Even as they sat debating, spies came running in with ominous tidings. A British army was fast approaching them—at their head the valiant and renowned Eyre Coote! Lally, too proud to retreat, prepared to give the newcomers battle. Nearly equal in point of numbers, the two armies stood grimly fronting one another across the plain. The French leader commenced the fight in person, by sweeping impetuously upon the British ranks at the head of his European cavalry. But the Gallic horsemen could not face the terrific fusilade that greeted them; they wavered, wheeled round, and galloped back to safety. The wrathful Lally had no option but to follow. Fierce and keen grew the conflict, but [127] the Irish exile was betrayed by his own men. His Maráthá cavalry, three thousand strong, stubbornly refused to advance a step. The other portions of his army offered little or no resistance. Lally's own corps, indeed, covered itself with glory, but this small handful of Irishmen was left to do battle against the whole British force. Attacked from all sides at once and struggling against overwhelming odds, they fought till the field was soaked with their blood; and the tiny remnant of heroes who still survived that awful onslaught were swept away by the sheer weight of opposing numbers.

Thus was the French power in India broken for ever; thus Lally fell. Pondicherry, in spite of the Irish general's brilliant and heroic defence, was the next to yield,—not, however, before it was necessary; for the French soldiers, maddened by their leader's long resistance, were clamouring to serve him as they had already served their commissary—by cutting him to pieces!

Whenever a great disaster overtakes a nation some one must be held responsible—some one must be the unhappy butt of a people's unreasoning anger. Not always does the blame fall on the right shoulders, but so long as it falls somewhere, and falls heavily, the populace's smouldering resentment is appeased. It was only natural that the French Court should select Lally as the scapegoat for their failure in the East. On his return to France he was seized and thrown into a dungeon of the Bastille, there to be barbarously and infamously tortured again and again. At the end of four years he was taken before a bench [128] of judges, stripped of the ribands and crosses his bravery had won him, and subjected to a rigid examination.

"Is this," exclaimed the white-haired veteran, "is this France's reward for forty years of faithful service?"

It was only part of it. The full measure of her favours was only apparent two days later when, gagged and bound and thrown on a hurdle, Count de Lally, Irish gentleman and soldier of fortune, was borne to the place of his death. It was the dusk of early dawn. Few were bestirring. Hurriedly, almost privately, were the preparations for the execution made. An axe glittered in the air, a dull thud was followed by a headsman's raucous cry, and a brave warrior had gone beyond the reach of earthly tribunals.

La Bourdonnais, Dupleix, Lally—three great men who had spent their lives in the service of their country. See how their country rewarded them!

Let us turn our eyes once again to Bengal, so recently the scene of British triumph. It is not, alas! with pride that we can look back upon the subsequent doings of our countrymen. A month after his brilliant victory of Plassey, Clive had sailed for England, there to be received with honour and acclamation. The long roll of Irish peers was enriched by an illustrious name; the "daring in war" became the Baron of Plassey. But with Clive no longer at the head of affairs, the government of Bengal became a government of tyranny and [129] oppression. A horrible mania swept over the Council—the mania of wanting to get rich quickly. The Company's servants were miserably underpaid. It was easy for an unscrupulous man to become wealthy at the expenses of the shrinking natives. We may grieve over but we cannot wholly wonder at the shocking abuse of power and authority which now became universal in Bengal.

So bad, indeed, grew the state of affairs that the Directors decided to send out Clive to India for the third time. Full powers were accorded him to straighten out the tangled reins of government. Once again the great statesman traversed the heaving waste of waters. It must have been a sore disappointment to him to see his life's work brought to nought by the cupidity of those placed in authority, but not until he actually arrived in Calcutta did he realise to the full the true position of affairs. Then, indeed, his grief and indignation overflowed. "Alas!" ran a despairing letter to a friend, "how is the English name sunk! I could not avoid paying the tribute of a few tears to the departed and lost fame of the British nation—irrecoverably so, I fear."

It was a dramatic meeting when Clive intimated to the Council his intentions to carry out drastic and far-reaching reforms. His speech was listened to in gloomy silence. When it was over one of the members, whose ill-deeds were notorious, made some show of opposition. The new Governor turned on him with flashing eyes. "Do you dare to dispute our authority?" he demanded, haughtily. Staggered by the question, the man collapsed sulkily into his seat, [130] while the faces of those assembled round the board grew long and pale.

No one knew better than Clive the extreme difficulty of his task. To evolve order out of the chaos which prevailed seemed almost hopeless, but the iron courage and inflexible will overbore all opposition. When eighteen months later Clive left India for the last time, he had laid the coping stone to his great and brilliant work in India. The private trading of the Company's servants was rigorously suppressed, the receiving of native bribes forbidden, and the whole government placed upon a sounder and firmer basis. It may be imagined that Clive's rigid ideas of right and wrong were by no means pleasing to his fellow-countrymen in Bengal; but like wise men they submitted to the inevitable.

Here is an instance of Clive's method of dealing with difficult problems. A special allowance made after Plassey to the English force was ordered by the Directors to be discontinued. The officers determined to resist tooth and nail this curtailment of what they deemed their rights. A secret league was formed; two hundred officers bound themselves under an oath of secrecy to resign their commissions on June 1. This they thought would surely induce the zealous reformer to give way; they little knew Clive if they imagined he would yield to bluff or intimidation.

The plot leaked out. On April 28 it was brought to the ears of Clive who, realising the danger, determined to suppress the conspiracy at all hazards. "I must see the bayonets levelled at my throat," he cried, "before I can be induced to give way!"

[131] Greatly to their surprise, the officers found their resignations immediately accepted. This they had by no means reckoned on, and it did not please them to see a number of commissions given to deserving non-commissioned officers and men. Their consternation was still greater when they beheld their leaders arrested and shipped off to England. The rest were sent down to Calcutta pending inquiries. What might have been a formidable mutiny was thus quickly nipped in the bud. One can imagine what might have happened had a less courageous man been at the head of affairs.

But Clive was never vindictive. Although the ringleaders met with severe punishment, the younger officers were treated with great leniency and kindness. Many who regretted their hasty resignations were reinstated in the service. It was reported to Clive that two of the conspirators had openly threatened to assassinate him. "Bah!" was his reply, "the officers are Englishmen, not assassins."

Before passing on to other affairs, let us consider for a moment the great work Clive had done in Bengal. How unenviable was the lot of the British settlers in 1757. Their factories at Calcutta were a heap of smoking ruins; they themselves were exiles who trembled at the shadow of a tyrant's rod. Ruin, and worse, stared them in the face. Ten years later we find these same outcasts sitting in the seats of government. The Company had become sovereign rulers over twenty-five millions of people, with revenues totaling nearly half that of England. More than this, the foundations of a great Empire [132] had been well and truly laid—an Empire capable of infinite expansion. Never forget that this wonderful change in affairs was mainly owing to the valour and foresight of one man—Clive "the Avenger," "the Daring in War."

Alas, for the fair hopes of the Company. Three years after Clive left India, Bengal was struggling in the grip of famine. A third of its inhabitants perished of want, trade became disorganised, revenues remained uncollected. It is difficult to imagine the fearful sufferings of the people during this terrible time. "Tender and delicate women," we are told, "whose veils had never been lifted before the public gaze came forth from those inner chambers in which Eastern jealousy had kept watch over their beauty, and threw themselves before the passers-by, imploring a handful of rice for their children. The Hugli every day rolled down thousands of corpses close to the porticoes and gardens of the English conquerors, and the very streets of Calcutta were blocked up by the dying and the dead." Do we not know what acute distress prevails when a famine visits India nowadays? What it must have been when relief funds were unknown, railways unheard of, and government in the hands of a trading company whose chief and ultimate aim was the amassing of wealth, passes comprehension.

As a result of this calamity, the prosperity of the Company melted away. By 1773 they were virtually bankrupt, and had to appeal to the government for aid. This led to a Parliamentary inquiry into Indian affairs. It led also to a bitter and envenomed attack upon the administration of Clive.

[133] Like all great men, the founder of our Indian Empire had many enemies, who by foul-mouthed abuse sought to stir up public feeling against him. The disastrous famine and the tales of native misery which began to reach England were powerful weapons in their hands. Clive had acquired a considerable fortune; he owned estates in several counties, his household vied with royalty in extravagant splendour, his attire was costly and magnificent. It was rumoured that his riches were the result of extortion and oppression, that his gold pieces were stained with the blood of the innocent. No tale was too wild or too improbable to be believed. In the eyes of many he became a veritable monster of iniquity who had battened upon the sufferings of a downtrodden nation.

In due course the matter came before Parliament. An exciting debate took place, and heated speeches were delivered upon both sides of the House. Many searching criticisms were levelled against Clive, and to these the great statesman made a spirited and dignified reply. Happily his listeners were for the most part sane and sober men, and the vote of censure was ultimately rejected without a division. Furthermore, it was affirmed unanimously "that Robert, Lord Clive, did at the same time render great and meritorious services to his country." Not among the least of Clive's victories can the result of this debate be accounted.

But in spite of his triumphant acquittal, the indignity of his treatment rankled deeply in Clive's heart. The ordeal through which he had passed [134] proved too great for an already shattered constitution. A prey to fits of melancholy and a victim of intense physical suffering, the last days of the great warrior-statesman were shrouded with gloom. Of his tragic end it is impossible to write even now without emotion. On November 22, 1774, he died by his own hand. This time the pistol did not refuse to do its deadly office. Clive had accomplished his life's work—who shall deny that he was entitled to his rest?

The year before Clive's death saw an important change in the administration of India. The grave scandals which the Parliamentary inquiry had brought to light had convinced the government that some drastic step was necessary. The Company had become far too powerful; they ruled over vast provinces with sovereign rights, they intrigued with kings, and made and unmade princes as best suited the policy of the moment. And all this on their own authority, without any reference to the Crown. It was essential that the government should have some voice in the matter. So in 1773 Lord North introduced his famous Regulating Bill which, in spite of fierce and bitter opposition on the part of the Directors, duly passed into law. By this Act it was decreed that the Governor-General in India should be nominated by Parliament; he was to hold office for five years, and to have a casting vote in a new Council of four members. In addition to this a Supreme Court of Justice was established for Calcutta, with a Lord Chief Justice and four other judges who, with the aid [135] of a British jury, were empowered to try all offences.

But let us turn from the uninviting atmosphere of English political squabbles to observe how things had prospered in the east. The mantle of Clive had fallen upon worthy shoulders. While the Empire-founder was eating out his heart in his stately Berkeley Square mansion, another was ably carrying on the great work he had begun. Warren Hastings had commenced life as a writer in the Company's service. In due time he became a member of Council at Calcutta; but while others around him abandoned themselves to extortion and wrong-doing, young Hastings steered a difficult but unsullied course. It was on Clive's advice the Company appointed him Governor of Bengal in 1772. They could not have made a better choice.

The name of Warren Hastings will be for ever associated with what has been called the Rohilla Bargain—one of the few stains upon an otherwise brilliant career. To the north-east of Delhi, in the fertile valley of the Ramgunga, lived a brave and warlike people. Of fair complexion and stalwart build, they were worthy descendants of the fierce adventurers who had flocked through the northern passes a century before to lay their swords at the feet of the Moghul rulers, and to be rewarded by the grant of a large tract of rich and well-watered pasture-land. When the last great Emperor had sunk into his grave and anarchy and confusion reigned throughout the land, this colony of Afghan warriors became practically an independent state. [136] No longer did they thirst for bloodshed, but happy and contented in their new-found home, pursued the golden arts of peace.

So might they have continued to this day but for the jealousy and greed of their powerful neighbour Oudh. Shujá-ud-Daulá, Nabob of this great principality, beheld the growing prosperity of the Rohillas with distrust, and longed to add their fertile acres to his own dominions. Alone he could not hope to do it—that he knew well; there was but one army in India capable of reducing so courageous a race. Would the English come to his assistance?

It may well be that Hastings shrank from the idea of exterminating a harmless and peaceable people. But his position was a difficult one. From the Directors at home the cry for money came with a wearisome monotony. "Govern the people well," cried they, "but at any rate send us money." It did not occur to them that these commands were contradictory, that the only possible way of raising money was by taxation, and that the natives were already groaning under more than they could bear. They were very honest and worthy gentlemen, no doubt; but they did not know the condition of the country, and little realised the dilemma in which their constant demands placed the new Governor of Bengal.

This, then, was the situation which Hastings had to face. On the one hand were the clamouring Directors; on the other a plausible and powerful Nabob with an alleged grievance and with whom it was essential to keep on the best of terms. "Lend me your army," said in effect this budding Alexander, [137] "and I will pay you four hundred thousand pounds sterling and defray the cost of the troops whilst in my service." It was an offer that at such a time could not be lightly disregarded. The bargain was struck.

Great was the consternation of the poor Rohillas when they heard how they were thus summarily to be disposed of. In vain they pleaded with their inexorable foes, offering a large ransom to be allowed to remain in peace. It was no use. Their valiant chieftain realised the extremity in which they were placed and resolved not to give in without a struggle. The finest fighting blood in India coursed through the veins of his people; and it was determined to defend their lives and their liberties until there should be no man left able to wield a sword.

Northwards marched a British brigade. On the 23rd of April 1774 a great battle took place. The Rohillas, forty thousand strong, fought with the utmost valour, but they could not hope to prevail against the highly trained troops opposed to them. "The enemy," remarked Colonel Champion who commanded on that occasion, "gave proof of a good share of military knowledge." It was otherwise with the Nabob of Oudh. Whilst the battle fiercely raged, he kept himself and his troops at a discreet distance. The British were left to do all the work themselves. It was not long, however, before the flower of the Rohilla army had fallen; two thousand of their dead encumbered the field of conflict, and a fierce bayonet charge put their [138] wavering ranks to flight. Then it was the doughty Nabob let loose his rabble hordes to plunder and destroy. The white troops looked on grimly whilst their allies looted the Rohilla encampment, but they were powerless to interfere. "We have had all the honour of the day," was Champion's wrathful exclamation, "and these banditti the profit."

Alas, for the fair valley of Rohilkhand. Alas, for the hundred thousand homeless wanderers who fled from the fire and the sword of the savage Nabob to pestilential and fever-laden jungles—the haunt of the tiger and the jackal. It was surely an ill day for England when her troops consented to become the paid mercenaries of a relentless despot!

Not many months after this, a ship put out from England carrying on board three of the members of Council appointed by North's Regulating Act. It is possible that had Hastings known the trouble certain of these gentlemen were to cause him he would have wished them cast away in some remote and desolate island, there to remain until he had accomplished the great task which lay before him. But that was not to be.


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